Thomas Bernhard is a writer of semi-autobiographical fiction and satire who possesses an acerbic wit. Born out of wedlock in Holland in 1931, he was raised for several years in Vienna by his maternal grandfather, himself a writer. His grandfather introduced him to the many literati of his generation and also to Schopenhauer, who remained a strong influence on Bernhard's life and writing. Bernhard considered Vienna his home though he maintained a love/hate relationship with it. The Boston Review cites that "In his final will and testament, Thomas Bernhard - Austria's most infamous novelist and playwright for the past half-century, and the most outspoken critic the state has endured since Karl Kraus - performed an unlikely post-mortem disappearing act. With characteristic bravado, he banned any further production and publication of his works within his home country for the duration of their copyright." Bernhard suffered from chronic tuberculosis to which he succumbed in 1989 at the age of 58. He speaks at great length about his illness in his novel, Wittgenstein's Nephew: A Novel (Vintage International).
Woodcutters, originally written as part of a trilogy, is Bernhard's diatribe about his disgust, revulsion, loathing, hatred and vilification of the hypocrites and losers that make up the art circle in Vienna from the 1950's through the 1980's. In his unique style, with not one paragraph in nearly 200 pages, this novel is told primarily in stream of consciousness from the viewpoint of a writer, one not unlike Bernhard himself. The novel is in three identifiable parts - the writer sitting in a wing chair observing a dinner party, the writer discussing his relationship with a recently deceased friend, and the conversations of an actor during dinner.
The first segment of the book has almost every sentence beginning with, containing, or ending with the phrase " ...from my wing chair". As the writer looks on at those attending the party, from his wingchair, he remembers all the reasons that he has been estranged from these very same people for the last twenty or thirty years. He remembers all the slights he received, the lies that were told about him and the hypocrisies he's witnessed. He tries to figure out why he accepted this invitation and ruminates about it over and over, finally coming to a semi-belief that it was because his friend had committed suicide yesterday and he was feeling more vulnerable when he was invited. He recollects his history with all of the attendees, each relationship ending poorly, with the writer getting the bad end of the stick. He can think of nothing positive to say about anyone nor can he imagine why he even remains at such a despicable gathering.
The middle part of the book takes place at Joana's funeral. Joana was the writer's friend and she committed suicide yesterday. Her funeral was this afternoon. As the writer recalls Joana's time as the reigning queen of Vienna's art scene, he describes her lovely costumes, her graciousness, and her mentoring of others. She marries a weaver, a man who creates great tapestries that are sold throughout the world. It was Joana who made him famous and created the mystique that surrounded him. When he was in his prime, her husband left her for a Mexican woman and Joana, in her grief, succumbed to uncontrolled alcoholism despite several treatments. It was not without surprise that the writer learned that Joana had taken her life.
The third part of the book is the arrival, two hours late, of the actor in whose honor this dinner party is being held. (The story goes back and forth in time as gaps are filled in about different characters and the writer's relationships with them). We are privy to the conversations at the table and the rudeness, drunkenness, and shameful behaviors of the guests. The actor has just finished up an Ibsen play and is tired, as are the guests, as the dinner did not start until close to midnight. The writer is a listener and observer, discussing in his own mind the implications and audacities of all that he hears. He is especially disgusted at the rudeness of an egomaniacal woman writer who keeps alluding to the actor's old age. The actor finally snaps and gives this woman a piece of his mind, an action that the writer finds stunning. While he originally had thought poorly of the actor, the actor starts speaking about how he'd like to live in the woods and be a woodcutter. For some reason, the writer finds this a lovely idea and he ends up liking the actor.
As the dinner party ends, the writer wants to be sure to leave alone. As a misanthrope, having company is one of the worst things he can imagine. He says polite and hypocritical goodbyes to his hosts creating his own self-loathing as he sees he is no better than those he criticizes for their false charms and graciousness. What he'd like to say to his hosts is that he hates them, that he has no idea why he came to this awful party, and that he hopes he doesn't see them for another twenty or thirty years. However, he does not do this. He plays his role as polite guest and leaves in an almost manic mood. He walks and runs around the streets of Vienna alternately embracing and hating this city that is his, despite all its foibles.
For those of us who can embrace Bernhard's unique style, he is a breath of fresh air. His writing has a post-modern feel to it as he examines everything as part of something else, yet everything having a separate and distinct context in its own right. Everything is connected and nothing touches anything else. We can wonder till the planets' ends and still come up with more and more reasons for why any particular event, action, or thought exists. The last thing Bernhard would call himself is a philosopher, but despite his self-description, there is a lot of philosophizing going on in his book.